cooper smeaton: one ref to rule them all

Born in Carleton Place, Ontario, southwest of Ottawa, on a Tuesday of this date in 1890, Cooper Smeaton was the NHL’s very first referee-in-chief. It was the reffing that got him into the Hall of Fame, years and years of it, but Smeaton also played the game, served time (briefly) as an NHL coach, and presided as a trustee of the Stanley Cup. He got his start playing point — defence — with several Montreal teams in the 1910s, and was a teammate of Odie and Sprague Cleghorn’s with the New York Wanderers in the American Amateur Hockey League. He refereed in the old National Hockey Association before signing up, in 1917, to serve in the artillery with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was a sergeant when he returned from France, and decorated, having been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for saving an ammunition dump from destruction after it was hit by a German shell.

The Hall of Fame says that as a referee he was fearless and always showed good sense. Enforcing the rules in the NHL in the early 1920s was not, let’s recall, for the frail-hearted or self-doubtful. An account I’ve been browsing of a 1923 game between Canadiens and Senators at Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena describes how unruly fans besieged the Ottawa dressing room after the game, and how the referees, Smeaton and Lou Marsh, tried to defend the visitors. “Cooper Smeaton used his fists freely in the battle,” one report goes, “and the police grabbed two or three of the ringleaders.” It was in the aftermath of Billy Coutu’s attack on referee Jerry Laflamme that Smeaton was appointed as the NHL’s  one-ref-to-rule-them-all in 1927. He kept on as a full-time whistler, too, and continued to pay the price. In 1929, overseeing a game in New York between Canadiens and Americans, he ended up with a broken leg after tumbling into the boards in a melee of players. That was in the second period; he finished the game before seeking treatment.

In 1933, after he cracked a pair of ribs breaking up a fight between Boston’s Eddie Shore and Sylvio Mantha of Montreal, he was back on the ice a couple of days later for a game between Canadiens and Senators. He had to warn the visiting team, that night, for foul language. “The  Ottawans,” Montreal’s Gazette noted, “were very loquacious all evening, climaxing a night’s oratorical effort with a barrage of Smeaton as he left the ice.”

He took a break from refereeing in 1930 to coach the Philadelphia Quakers through their only NHL campaign, after the franchise moved from Pittsburgh, and before it folded for good in 1931. A couple of young Quakers, like Syd Howe and Wilf Cude, would go on to have fruitful NHL careers, but as a team that season, Philadelphia was a bust, winning just four of 44 games, and finishing dead last in the ten-team NHL.

Smeaton later said that he lost 40 pounds that year just from worrying whether there would be enough money day-to-day to keep the team on ice. He recalled waiting with his players on a Philadelphia street in hope that a messenger would show up from the bank. “We were scheduled to play in Chicago and it was getting near train time and we needed the money for the trip. The man finally arrived with the money but a succession of things like that can wear you out.”

fifteen games a ranger: buddy maracle, in and out of the nhl

In A Minors Key: The Springfield Indians, probably in their 1928-29 configuration. Back row, from the left, best as I can tell, that’s coach Frank Carroll, Frank Waite, Harry Foster, Leroy Goldsworthy, and Laurie Scott (?). Front, from left: Buddy Maracle, Wilfrid Desmarais, Andy Aitkenhead, Clark Whyte (?), Art Chapman.

The turn of the calendar from January to February brings Hockey Is For Everyone™ — “a joint NHL and NHLPA initiative celebrating diversity and inclusion in hockey.” There’s a hashtag, there are websites (here and here), a mobile museum; there are events and programs planned around the league, throughout the month. Ambassadors have been named, one for each NHL team; others are drawn from women’s hockey, the media, as well as from the ranks of the league’s distinguished alumni.

Fred Sasakamoose is one of the latter. His story and achievements have both been widely chronicled, and there’s no questioning his contributions or commitment as a hockey pioneer and change-maker. Last year, he was a worthy (and past due) recipient of the Order of Canada. To point out (again) that Sasakamoose doesn’t seem, in fact, to have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player doesn’t diminish his achievements, or affront his dedication to many causes, hockey and otherwise, over the years. The NHL doesn’t want to get into it, apparently: in recent months, the league’s position on its own history so far as it involves Buddy Maracle and his apparent breakthrough has been — no position at all. You’ll find his statistics archived on NHL.com, but no word of his story, beyond those bare numbers. I’ve asked both the league and the New York Rangers, for whom Maracle played in 1931, about whether they have plans to recognize and/or honour his legacy. They don’t.

Maybe there’s a debate to be had, maybe not: the NHL is nothing if not steadfast in staying as aloof as possible from the history. This month, still, wherever he’s introduced in the league’s Hockey Is For Everyone outlay, Fred Sasakamoose remains “the NHL’s first Canadian indigenous player.”

Here (again): Buddy Maracle’s story. A version of this post first appeared in the January 7, 2019, edition of The Hockey News.

Buddy Maracle’s time as an NHLer lasted not quite two months in 1931, and when it was over it quickly subsided into the thickets of history and statistics. A review of the records indicates that, beyond the big league, he played all over the North American map in a career that lasted nearly 20 years. What they don’t so readily reveal is why now, 60 years after his death, Maracle is being recognized as a hockey trailblazer. That has to do with something that the NHL itself has been reluctant to acknowledge: Maracle’s legacy as the league’s first Indigenous player.

For years, Fred Sasakamoose has been credited as having been the man who made that breakthrough when he skated as a 19-year-old for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953. Now 85, Sasakamoose, from Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, has been justly celebrated for his hockey exploits and as a mentor to Indigenous youth. Last year, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

And yet history suggests that at least two other Indigenous players preceded Sasakamoose into the NHL. The oversight has a long if not exactly distinguished history: those who’d gone before had already been all but forgotten by the time Sasakamoose joined Chicago for the 11 games he played over the course of the 1953-54 season.

The question of just who might have been the NHL’s original Indigenous player goes back to the league’s very beginnings. According to NHL records, Paul Jacobs lined up for the Toronto Arenas for a single game in the league’s second season in 1918. Jacobs, who was Mohawk from Kahnawake, near Montreal, did indeed practice with Charlie Querrie’s team in the pre-season, but the evidence that he actually made it to regular-season ice is sparse, at best.

Taffy Abel, who played defence for the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, had Chippewa background, though it’s not clear how much. When New York launched its first NHL team in 1925, the Americans, someone had the bright idea of pretending that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born centreman, Rene Boileau, was in fact a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater. Manager Tommy Gorman might have been behind the stunt, though he later said it was all co-owner Tom Duggan’s idea; either way, it quickly flopped.

When the New York Rangers joined the league the following year, Conn Smythe was the man briefly in charge of assembling a roster. The man who’d go on to invent and shape the destiny of the Toronto Maple Leafs was fired from his first NHL job before his fledglings played an NHL game. Smythe did recruit Taffy Abel before he ceded his job to Lester Patrick, and he seems to have had an eye on Maracle, too, who was by then skating in Toronto’s Mercantile League. As it was, 22-year-old Maracle found a home with a Ranger farm team that fall.

There’s much that we don’t know about how Maracle got to that point. Much of what is known of his earliest years has been pieced together by Irene Schmidt-Adeney, a reporter for The Ayr News who took an interest in the Maracle story early last year.

A town of 4,000 in southwestern Ontario, Ayr is arranged around a curve of the Nith River, a frozen stretch of which, just to the south, Wayne Gretzky skated as a boy. It’s by way of Schmidt-Adeney’s researches that we understand that young Albert Maracle and his family, Oneida Mohawks, seem to have moved close to town after departing the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in the early 1900s. At some point Albert married Elsie Hill; their son, Buddy-to-be, was born Henry Elmer Maracle in Ayr in September of 1904.

The family subsequently headed north, to Haileybury, which is where Henry got his hockey-playing start, first at high school, then as a junior with the North Bay Trappers. He seems to have gone mostly by Elmer in those years, though the course of his career he began to show up in contemporary newspapers as Bud, Clarence, Moose, and (inevitably) Chief. Buddy seems to have taken hold by the time, in 1926, that he found himself farmed out to New York’s Can-Am Hockey League affiliate team in Springfield, Massachusetts — which just happened to be nicknamed the Indians.

Accounts of him from his hockey heyday in the late 1920s and early ’30s note his size and his speed, his deft stickhandling, his “tireless” checking. “Comes at you from all directions,” was one opponent’s assessment of his play on the left wing. “Maracle is so big that stiff body checks hurt the checker more than they do him,” The Boston Globe enthused. “Players just bounce off him.”

He’d end up playing six seasons in Springfield, captaining the team, and becoming a favourite with the fans for his industry and failure to quit. Watching him play in Philadelphia, one admiring writer decided that he “personified the ideal of American sportsmanship.”

For all the admiration Maracle garnered in his playing days, many contemporary newspapers had trouble getting his heritage straight: over the years, he was variously identified as Iroquois, Blackfoot, Sioux, Sac Fox, and “the last Mohican.”

“Redskin Icer” was another epithet that featured in press reports of Maracle’s exploits. Recounting his hockey deeds, reporters were also only too pleased to couch their columns with references to warpaths and wigwams, war whoops, tomahawks, and scalps.

Assessing just how much of this was idle stereotyping and how much pointedly racist is beside the point: casual or otherwise, it’s all more or less insidious. As nasty as it reads on the page in old newspapers, how much worse must it have been for Maracle in the moment? When Springfield visited Boston Garden in 1929 to play the hometown Tigers, local fans singled out Maracle for abuse: whenever he touched the puck, a local columnist blithely reported, “there were shouts of ‘Kill him.’”

Maracle got his NHL chance towards the end of the 1930-31 season. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.”

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buddy maracle, in 1931: swept through everybody to leave cude helpless with a wicked shot

Lestermen: The New York Rangers line up in 1931. Back row, from left they are: Bill Cook, Butch Keeling, Frank Peters, coach Lester Patrick, Ching Johnson, Buddy Maracle, Joe Jerwa, Bill Regan. Front, from left: Bun Cook, Paul Thompson, Murray Murdoch, Cecil Dillon, Frank Boucher, John Ross Roach.

Out now in The Hockey News online and at the newsstand, paywalled in both places — my profile of Buddy Maracle and the case for recognizing him as the NHL’s first Indigenous player. He was 27 and a minor-league veteran when the New York Rangers called him up from the Springfield Indians. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” a column in The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.” Maracle played his first NHL game in Detroit on February 12, debuting in the Rangers’ 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He didn’t figure on the scoresheet that night, and also failed to score in New York’s next two games. Hosting the lowly Philadelphia Quakers on February 22, the Rangers cruised to a 6-1 win. Maracle assisted when Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period; in the third, Dillon returned the favour when Maracle beat the Quakers’ Wilf Cude to score his lone major-league goal. One newspaper accounts rated it “clever;” getting the puck from Dillon, Maracle “swept through everybody to leave Cude helpless with a wicked shot.”

He would notch two more NHL assists. In a March 3 game against Boston, he abetted Bill Regan on a third-period goal, the only one the Rangers scored in a 4-1 loss. March 17, he helped on another Dillon goal in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators. In four playoff games that year, Maracle registered no points, took no penalties.

Not all of his achievements were logged for the statistical archives. In a March 7 game against the Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens, his penalty-killing caught the fancy of the local cognoscenti. By Bert Perry’s account in The Globe, Maracle “gave quite an exhibition of ragging the puck while [Ching] Johnson was off, displaying stick-handling of a high order that merited the applause of the fans.”

(Image: New York Rangers)

how I spent my summer vacation: ching johnson

Oil Change: In the summer of 1930, Ching Johnson (right) repaired to California to work in the oilfields he owned in Inglewood, near Los Angeles. That’s his father looking on; Johnson is busy (and I quote) “hoisting out a stop block on a drilling table.”

Ching Johnson began the 1929-30 NHL season, his fourth as a defenceman with the New York Rangers, refusing to man the blueline. It was the old story, and the newer one, too: the man who was gaining more and more reputation as one of the game’s best and hardest-hitting defencemen wanted more money. High praise for hockey players was often expressed in the United States in ballpark terms: along with Boston’s Eddie Shore, Johnson was in those years often touted as a hockey Babe Ruth.

When the Rangers’ president, Colonel John Hammond, mailed Johnson a contract to sign in the summer of 1929, it took a while to find him. With the season set to open early in November, late October came on without any word back from Johnson, and that launched a rumour that he was giving up hockey at the age of 31. Rangers’ manager Lester Patrick had the rest of his team training in Springfield, Massachusetts, and he said he’d make do without Johnson on defence — he was thinking about dropping Bill Cook back to help on defence.

Johnson’s mail finally found him in Minneapolis. He wrote Colonel Hammond to say that he wasn’t ignoring him, but he was negotiating. I don’t know how much Johnson was making before, but word that fall was that he wanted $8,500 a season. Hammond was offering $7,500. Either way, he’d be getting less that half what Shore, the NHL’s best-paid player, was taking in. When Johnson got to New York early in November, he and Hammond met and dickered and parted ways on the understanding they’d meet again.

A rumour had the Rangers trading him, possibly to the Montreal Maroons. Then, next, the retirement story was back, substantiated this time by the principals themselves.

“Ching demands a salary beyond anything we can pay,” Colonel Hammond lamented. “We have removed him from our plans for this season.”

For his part, Johnson said he was just as happy devoting himself to the oilfields he’d recently bought out in California.

Within a few days, though, the two men had hammered out a deal. Johnson’s new contract was three years. One “authentic” report said he’d settled for $10,000 a year; big, if true.

Johnson didn’t skate in New York’s opening game in Montreal against the Maroons. For his debut a few days later, he did play 68 of 70 minutes in a 5-5 overtime tie with the Detroit Cougars, resting only to serve a minor penalty.

The following February, a crash involving Boston’s Dit Clapper broke Johnson’s jaw in three places. He was out of action for a month; when he returned it was with a custom-rigged leather jaw protector that one wag said gave him a certain Abraham Lincoln air.

After Montreal’s Canadiens ousted New York from the playoffs in 1930, Johnson headed for his California oil patch, in Inglewood, where he also seems to have owned fruit farm. It was October again when he motored north for another season of hockey with New York. Lester Patrick convened his training camp in Toronto this time, centred on the west-end rink at Ravina Gardens. By the time it broke in early November, Patrick was thinking Johnson and Leo Bourgeault would serve as the Rangers’ frontline defensive tandem.

A little while later, Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle caught up with Johnson as the Rangers arrived at New York’s Penn Station en route to Philadelphia to open the season against the newly minted Quakers. Johnson looked “very fit and cool in a blue suit, gray soft hat and no overcoat.”

Johnson took off some 37 pounds during the summer and is down to 200 pounds, just a nifty weight for a defense man.

“I didn’t eat,” said Johnson, explaining the phenomenon.

Ching, once a cook in a lumber camp as a vacation lark, is said to like his chow reasonably well. He didn’t go on a diet because his broken jaw hurt when he started the mastication of a beefsteak, but to get into hockey trim. The jaw, broken in the service of Colonel Hammond last winter, hasn’t given him any trouble. Perhaps the California sunshine did it.

a wreath of leeks for wilf cude

The young Welshman is something they called Wilf Cude when was in the business of guarding NHL nets in the 1930s, though sometimes it was the plucky Welshman. He was, true enough, born in Barry in Wales in 1906, not long before his family upped and moved to Winnipeg. (He died on this day in 1968, at the age of 61.) Cude played his first NHL hockey for the Philadelphia Quakers in 1930. Next he served a stint over the course of the 1931-32 season as the league’s spare goaltender, available to any team that might need his services in an emergency, which is how he ended up tending Boston’s net (for two games) and Chicago’s (a 11-3 rout by Toronto in which he replaced his childhood friend Charlie Gardiner and allowed nine goals.) Montreal signed him in 1933, but with Lorne Chabot firmly ensconced in goal, Canadiens soon loaned him to the Detroit Red Wings, where he excelled, helping to haul his team into the 1934 Stanley Cup finals against Gardiner’s Black Hawks, who prevailed in four games. Called back to Montreal for the following season, Cude played seven injury-plagued seasons there before quitting the nets in 1940. Sensational, the newspapers called Cude in Montreal, and dazzling and Gibraltar-like. In the spring of 1938, when the Red Wings and Canadiens travelled to Europe for a post-season barnstorming tour, one of the early games the teams played was at Earlscourt in London. Montreal won that one, 5-4, on ice described as sticky. Before the puck dropped, Cude was called to centre ice for a special celebration of his Welshness: a London beauty queen bestowed on him a wreath of leeks, while the crowd of 8,000 cheered.